‘Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.’
Jesus said, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:15-20)
I was just a very small child when Hurricane Hazel catapulted through southeastern Ontario in the mid-1950’s, but I’ll never forget it – and I wouldn’t be surprised if the mere mention of the name brings memories to the surface for many of you as well. My family was fortunate – our home was 100 miles away from Toronto where it hit the hardest, and we weren’t really affected by it. But when Hazel’s 110 kilometre an hour winds finally exhausted themselves, and the storm had emptied 12 inches of rain in the space of 48 hours, the destruction was overwhelming – bridges and streets washed out, widespread flooding, entire houses carried out into Lake Ontario, 81 dead, and 4000 families homeless. For many it must have felt like the end of the world. And we don’t have to look even that long ago or far away to remember nature at its unpredictable worst – it’s not that long ago that a tornado tore its way through downtown Goderich, and of course we’ve experienced a few smaller but similar episodes locally since then. It only takes one such event to realize just how quickly things can change.
And this week, most of us have aware of the news reports coming out of Texas and many Caribbean nations of the devastation left in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma – for countless thousands also a grim reminder that life as we know it can change in the twinkling of an eye.
The earliest Christians were convinced in quite a literal way that the end of their world was nigh – not from feisty weather systems, but from social and political and military realities – and this belief found voice in various New Testament writings. The people looked around at the oppressive might of the Roman Empire under which they were being oppressed and persecuted and killed, and believed that it just couldn’t last – that surely God would bring a fitting end to it, and frankly, the sooner the better. St. Paul clearly had this in mind in the part of his letter to the Roman church that we read from today – “you know what time it is”, he says somewhat ominously – and he doesn’t need to spell it out. In his mind, and in the minds of his listeners, it’s time for the end of the age, time a changing of the guard.
But what’s really interesting to me is the sense of expectancy and even hope with which he says, effectively: ‘no matter how bad things look now, this isn’t the falling of night, but rather the beginning of a new day.’ Clearly he believed that the trials and tribulations faced by the early church were simply a gateway to a new world of justice and peace; they were engaged in the exciting process of birthing something new – specifically the Second Coming of Christ who would usher in the Kingdom of God in all its glory. They quite literally expected that one day soon the sky would split open, the stars would fall, and Christ would come down out of heaven heralded by trumpets as the dead climbed out of their graves. As we’re all aware, this didn’t happen for them, and as tempted as some of us may be to simply dismiss this theology as some kind of fanatical wishful thinking, the notion of a Second Coming and the end of things as we know them, at its core actually expresses something important. And simply stated, it’s the faith that things are not always going to be the way they are now, that even in the worst of times God does not abandon us, and ultimately that death and destruction don’t have the last word. In fact, whether we believe the end of time will happen today, next year, or 10 thousand years from now, we believe that we are not alone in our assorted trials and that there is calm after every storm.
And the demand of this belief, St. Paul says, is to “live honourably” – living as Christ taught, building a society in which all are valued; a society in which boundaries of race or gender or wealth or whatever are a thing of the past; a society built on the commandment of love for God and neighbour. So in essence what Paul is saying here, I think, is that as much as we might want to just sit back and wait for Jesus to float down out of the clouds and rescue us from ourselves, in reality we are to help create the new world. It’s not just about God’s action, but about ours as well. As Jesus says in the Gospel lesson, what we bind on earth – that is, what we create in the here and now by our words and deeds – is bound in heaven – that is, it creates a future for others as well as ourselves, for good or ill, which we may never have imagined.
Saying that the end of the world is nigh might sound like a pretty accurate assessment, at least on an emotional level, of what’s going on in the world these days; but the truth is that the beginning of the world is nigh as well. The destruction of a Hurricane Harvey, the challenge of environmental degradation, the mounting political tensions in North Korea, or the various personal disasters and tragedies we face all threaten us with the end of the world we know and in which we feel secure. We can feel terrified by these realities, helpless, and powerless to respond; we can try to hide from them and distract ourselves with trivialities. Or, we can open our eyes, lift up our heads, and begin to shape the new world out of the ashes of the old, as Paul says: ‘laying aside the works of darkness and putting on the armour of light.’
The promise of Scripture is that beyond the darkest hours there is a new dawn, a new creation, which we have responsibility to build with God in this world. So as we pray for those affected by hurricane and flood this week (and hopefully provide financial support through relief agencies as we are able), and for all who are experiencing the collapse of the world they know, we rest also in the faith that God is present in the midst of every storm. May we live with this awareness, may we be the hands and voice of faithful and compassionate response, and may we hold onto the promise that beyond every night a new day dawns. For this we pray and together say Amen.
The Venerable Nancy Adams